“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” — Morpheus to Neo from the movie, “The Matrix”
Welcome, my fellow dot-connectors and truth-seekers! Are you ready for a deep dive into what’s wrong with our world and what we need to do about it? I’ve been saying since the first installment, Finding Greater Peace and Joy in Our “Crazy” World, that I’m going to be sharing some provocative ideas as we go further down the rabbit hole in search of Truth. This is my series within a larger exploration, we will really start connecting some big dots about what is wrong with our world. Importantly, understanding the nature and roots of our struggles also illuminates what we need to do to overcome these problems.
I said from the outset of this series, to borrow an analogy from baseball, that I would be “swinging for the fences.” That is, I am going to be exploring some bold and thought-provoking ideas. My goal is to integrate different concepts and ideas and offer fresh perspectives on the challenges of our modern world. While I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, I’m committed to delving deeply and sharing insights that may spark some compelling and useful ways of understanding our world. Also, I’m being “true to myself” in that I’m trying to convey ideas to you, in which I believe, as openly and honestly as I can.
The dots that we will be connecting cover a wide range and include concepts within the sciences, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, religion, wisdom from the arts and pop culture, and our personal experiences. Here is a truth I believe: You have already connected many of these dots yourself in similar ways, but perhaps you haven’t written these down or articulated them to others.
“All secrets are open secrets. Nothing is hidden. Nothing is revealed. People can only be told what they already know. Although they know, they may not be conscious of their knowledge.” — Camden Benares, from “Zen Without Zen Masters”
It’s crucial to understand the gravity of my next statements. What I’m about to share not only diagnoses key issues underlying the world’s problems, but also sets the stage for potential transformative changes. If I am correct about what I am about to say, the implications are profound and far-reaching. Thus, I believe that the claims I will be explaining a lot of what is wrong with this world, the challenges we will have ahead of us, and what we will need to do to overcome them.
In particular, as I weave this narrative, we will get to the 800 lbs. gorilla that is artificial intelligence. I want to make this as clear as possible: AI represents the most unique and daunting challenge that humanity has probably ever faced. Its very nature poses a threat to us, and I will explain precisely and clearly how this is the case. It is not for the common reasons we are seeing in the media, although many of those concerns are also legitimate.
When I connect these particular dots, I believe that, if you are trying to be reasonable and open, you will agree with me. I am trying to put words to beliefs that you have not voiced and/or feelings you have about how things in this world seem awry. You will know what I am saying is true because I will connect to truths that you already know, but you might not know that you know them. At least, I believe that I can articulate these truths in a way that connects with what you already know or suspect. In essence, I’m not only trying to connect the dots on some big ideas, I am also trying to connect my dots with your dots.
Before diving into the core of our discussion, let’s quickly revisit some important caveats.
- Skip the rest of these caveats if you are already aware of my caveats.
- I encourage you to read my first article before proceeding to give you proper context for what I will be saying. That article includes some of these caveats.
- I will repeat myself — my apologies! I hope to turn this into a book, but I don’t have the time to weave everything together elegantly right now.
- I will put my “thought babies” and more important statements in italics for emphasis. Please read my first article in the series to give you context for the thought babies.
- As I’ve written, there are very few absolute truths in this world, so I can only point to general/partial truths. Thus, while you might not totally agree with what I’ll be saying, please look for some truth in claims I’m going to make.
- While I will support my beliefs and assertions and place proper caveats on many of them, it’s okay if you disagree. I’m not here to argue with anyone. However, I feel compelled to “call it like I see it.”
- I will start blending science and spirituality more as we move forward. For the longest time, I have had a war within myself as my spiritual and empirical sides battled one another. It’s a long story, but those sides have made peace, so I will be moving back and forth within these different realms. I will be blending the two worldviews because I see them pointing to some of the same truths.
- I’m not claiming that I’m the first person to say any of what I’m about to say/write. Countless others have made similar observations, and I’ll be citing many of them. However, I’ll be putting my own “spin” on these ideas and weaving them together a bit differently than most folks — partly because I will be blending science and spirituality.
- Ultimately, the purpose of all of this is to help you find greater peace and joy in your life. Thus, if you find some of the ideas and perspectives illuminating or helpful, please use them within your own life as you see fit. If not, my apologies, and I encourage you to pursue other paths and resources that help you live The Good Life.
- If you do like some of the things that I say illuminating and/or helpful, I’d very much appreciate you sharing these articles because I stink at social media, marketing, and self-promotion.
The Great News About Our Modern World: A Journey of Progress and Hardship
Before we dive into what’s wrong with our world, it’s important that we all appreciate the tremendous progress humanity has made over the past few hundred years. As Harvard psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker describes in books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, we have made incredible advances beginning around the late 17th century. Around that time, the world began to see unprecedented changes due to the combined effects of the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Most major metrics of human flourishing (e.g., longevity, poverty rates, deaths from wars, famines, pandemics, homicide) have improved markedly during this time.
For instance, until a few hundred years ago, approximately 27% of children did not live to see their first birthday, and 46% did not reach their fifteenth. Loss of a child is the worst suffering we can imagine So, the fact that infant and child mortality rates have dropped so significantly should be celebrated as one of the greatest collective achievements of humanity.
As another example of the amazing progress humanity has made over the past two hundred years, throughout most of human civilization during the past 2000 years, about 90–95% of humans lived in extreme poverty. Now that figure is less than 10%. What a remarkable triumph of human progress!
As one last example of our tremendous progress, medical and scientific advances such as germ theory, vaccines, and antibiotics that have saved the lives of countless millions. For example, the during it’s last century of existence, smallpox killed approximately 500 million people. Those who survived this excruciatingly painful disease, which had a 30% infected fatality rate, were often horribly disfigured. Thanks to vaccines, no one has died from smallpox since 1979, the same year that the World Health Organization declared smallpox to be eradicated.
The History of Civilization Was Often Brutal
While Pinker emphasizes the improvements in modern times, it’s important to keep in mind that the history of civilization has often been quite brutal. Our past is filled with intense hardships such as wars, genocides, religious persecution, plagues, slavery, misogyny, oppression, inequalities, and famine. Indeed, Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers a broader historical perspective in his book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” arguing that the journey from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to modernity has often been a bumpy road.
In fact, it is debatable whether early civilization, up until about two hundred years ago, represented an improvement over the typical living conditions of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. There have been many periods in the history of civilization when one might have been much better off living in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribe rather than, let’s say, as a peasant in Medieval Europe. We must not overly-glamorize the lives of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, it’s just to say that sometimes their hardships weren’t as bad as the lives of so many throughout civilization.
While the stark challenges faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors were undoubtedly different from those in later periods, such as Medieval Europe, it’s essential to acknowledge the complexity of these comparisons. Each era had its unique set of hardships and advantages, shaped by varying social structures, environmental conditions, and technological advancements. The important point that we will be returning to is this: There is a profound mismatch between the challenges that are hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to confront and the modern challenges we face today.
So, What’s the Matter Here?
Imagine that we were a floating celestial consciousness that was going to be randomly placed into an organic human vessel within the past 5000 years, when would you choose for your consciousness to be placed into that human body? When would you have the best chances of surviving and even thriving? If we were given such a choice, now would be our best “Vegas odds” chance of success.
Many of you might be groaning about this because it often seems as if the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, most people are the world, especially in affluent countries, are quite pessimistic about the future. We are not alone in our belief that the world is getting worse and not better.
While we tend to be quite pessimistic about the future despite our great progress, there is another twist and layer of complexity. Most individuals within affluent countries, when asked, will rate their individual happiness/life satisfaction as rather high. For instance, when we look at the percentage of Americans who report feeling fairly to very satisfied, the percentage is quite high — 83% according to a 2023 U.S. Gallup poll. Moreover, you can see that, despite the many ups and downs we’ve experienced in America since 1979, the first year these data were gathered, personal life satisfaction has remained high and stable.
Thus, life satisfaction in the United States remains relatively high despite all of the struggles we’ve had (e.g., the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001, the Great Recession, increased political polarization, the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the toxic levels of negative partisanship, concerns about climate change, rising levels of mental health problems). Interestingly, despite most Americans rating their personal life satisfaction as fairly high, Americans are not very satisfied with America on the whole.
The Perceived Happiness Gap
Another curious finding regarding personal happiness and life satisfaction is that citizens of most countries rate their personal happiness as rather high, but they believe the average happiness of their fellow citizens is much lower. This is known as the Perceived Happiness Gap. As one stark example, 90% of South Koreans rate themselves as “rather happy” or “very happy” but they believe that only 25% of fellow South Koreans would rate themselves similarly. For Americans, according to this survey, about 90% rate themselves as “rather happy” or “very happy” but they believe that only about 48% of Americans would rate themselves similarly. This Perceived Happiness Gap was observed in every country that was studied.
The Progress Paradox
Life has improved for countless millions of us over the past few hundred years. From a statistical standpoint, being alive now is our best chance at having a good life than at any time in our history. On a personal level, most of us, especially within WEIRD countries (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), rate themselves as fairly to very happy/satisfied with life.
Yet, it’s also true that, despite the incredible progress humanity has made, many of us are quite dissatisfied with our own countries as a whole and are quite pessimistic about the future. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. We know more about happiness, and can transmit this knowledge, better than at any point in our history. Think of the easy access we have to happiness-based books, podcasts, YouTube videos, social media posts, happiness apps, self-help books and gurus as well as the countless millions of us taking antidepressant medications and seeing therapists. Yet, we don’t seem to be making much progress on our happiness – at least not in affluent countries. We might call this the Progress Paradox. These seemingly contradictory findings have significant implications for humanity’s future, and we will explore them in depth in the upcoming articles. I have ways of explaining these contradictions that, I believe, make sense.
Reasons We Believe That The World Is Getting Worse
We must remember that these multiple, seemingly contradictory, truths can co-exist. Thus, we must refrain from thinking dualistically (i.e., in black-or-white, or all-or-nothing) terms here. Yes, humanity has made great progress. Yes, humanity still has a lot of room for improvement, and yes, we are pessimistic about our respective countries and our futures.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
How can we explain why we feel like things are so bad and getting worse, despite the facts about our tremendous progress? Also, this is despite how so many of us, especially in WEIRD countries, are benefitting greatly from the progress that has been made? How is it that, even as so many aspects of our world and our lives get better with progress, we feel so pessimistic about the future?
The Amount of Suffering in This World
While we have made incredible progress over the centuries, there is still disconcerting levels of suffering in this world. For instance, while a smaller percentage of people live in poverty, the world population has risen significantly in the past few centuries. According to the World Bank, we have almost 700 million people living in extreme poverty right now, on less than $2.15/day. To put this into perspective, this is a higher number than the entire population of the world in 1700 (610 million).
As another source of suffering in this modern world, despite institutional slavery being abolished, about 50 million people live in modern slavery (e.g., human trafficking, forced labor). Moreover, tens of millions of people die each year from preventable causes (e.g., infectious diseases, starvation/malnutrition, lack of clean water/sanitation, lack of vaccines for preventable diseases, infant/child mortality, accidents). Thus, even with our progress, the aggregate amount of suffering that occurs in this world on a daily basis is staggering. Many of us, partly because this information is so readily available, are aware of the tremendous amount of suffering and injustice in the world. The knowledge of these harsh realities is quite depressing and stressful.
The Serious Challenges That Humanity Faces
In addition to the amount of suffering that occurs in our world daily, many of us believe that, and feel like, the world is getting worse and are pessimistic about the future for another reason: Humanity has some huge, and extremely thorny, challenges on our collective plate.
This list of challenges is not exhaustive, but most of these should be familiar to you. It is our familiarity with and awareness of these complex challenges that is probably contributing to our collective pessimism, particularly in WEIRD countries (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic).
- Climate Change: The planet is experiencing significant warming, leading to detrimental consequences for human life, ecosystems, and economies. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, 2021)
- Biodiversity Loss: The rapid decline in global wildlife populations, 69% since 1970, is indicative of severe environmental degradation. (World Wildlife Fund — WWF, 2020)
- Nuclear Proliferation: The risk of nuclear conflict remains a global concern, particularly with nations like North Korea and Iran pursuing the development of nuclear arms. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 2021)
- Mental Health Crisis: A significant rise in mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, is impacting millions worldwide, often exacerbated by inadequate treatment options. (World Health Organization — WHO). There is also an epidemic of, or at least rise in, loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, our greater connectedness through technology.
- Socio-Political Conflicts: Ongoing conflicts and tensions, such as the situation in Ukraine and between Israel and Palestine, contribute to global instability.
- Political Polarization: Intense and increasing political division is undermining social cohesion and democratic processes, particularly in the United States. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
- Rise of Authoritarian Regimes: An increase in authoritarian governance is observed worldwide, threatening global democracy and human rights. (Freedom House, 2021)
- Global Poverty and Inequality: Despite technological and economic progress, a substantial portion of the world’s population continues to live in extreme poverty. (World Bank)
- Healthcare Accessibility: About one half of the world, about four billion people, lack access to essential health care services. (World Health Organization — WHO)
- Educational Inequality: The pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities in education, affecting millions of children and youth globally. (United Nations, 2020)
- Technological Disruption and Cybersecurity Threats: The technological revolution, while bringing progress, also introduces significant cybersecurity risks.
- Existential Threats of AI: The rapid advancement and proliferation of artificial intelligence poses significant risks to societal structures and economic stability, with some risk above zero of an existential risk to humanity. (The New York Times)
You might be able to think of a number of other troubling concerns about our world beyond this list. A sobering reality we must face and accept is this: Our past progress is no guarantee of continued progress. For example, the toxic divisions within America such negative partisanship and a loss of faith in our elections, government institutions, and one another are a threat to the future of the United States. The idea that our democracy could break, which is a thought that probably didn’t trouble us much until recent years, has many Americans quite worried about our future.
Humanity’s Inflection Point
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were blissfully unaware of troubles outside their immediate tribe. They were concerned with surviving and making it through the day. This also applies to previous generations within civilization who could not afford to be preoccupied with worry about global problems and were probably unaware of most of them.
Now our world is more connected than ever. Through advances in our technology such as the internet, smartphones, and social media, we’ve become a global community. We have more access to information (and misinformation) about the world, and to each other, than at any time in history. Perhaps this is part of the problem, and why so many of us are reasonably concerned about the state of the world and the direction we are heading. Our connectedness through our technologies exposes us to a firehose of negative information about our world that can be quite overwhelming for us.
Our negativity bias ensures that we are drawn to and consume more negative news than positive. There is much truth to long-time adage within journalism that, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Also, because of the power of bad, negative news affects us more negatively than positive news affects us positively. In a manner of speaking, the internet is like eating the Forbidden Fruit, and the knowledge of all the evils and ills of the word threatens to overwhelm us. Sometimes ignorance was, indeed, a kind of bliss. While knowledge is power, knowledge dominated by a tsunami of negativity is both overwhelming and depressing.
Multiple truths co-exist. It is a great time to be alive in so many ways because of the amazing progress humanity has made. Most of us benefit immensely daily from the many creature comforts of modernity. Yet, humanity has some daunting, and very complicated, challenges ahead.
I am going to make a provocative claim: What if most of the problems in our world are not in spite of the wonders of modernity, but a result of them? In other words, what if our progress is the heart of our societal problems and more progress will exacerbate these problems?
I believe humanity is at an inflection point. With great humility, while simultaneously “swinging for the fences,” I will explain why I believe humanity is at an inflection point, and what we need to do about it. Please join me for the next article in this series as we really start to piece this provocative puzzle together! Having a clearer understanding of the nature of our challenges and struggles illuminates our way forward.